How does Japan rate in communicating its message to the world? Some public relations experts share their views

PR gurus offer advice

As most Japan-based journalists will willingly and happily attest, there is renewed global interest in the country – for a variety of reasons, positive and negative. Japan has recently been caught up in a barrage of accusations from its neighbors on its attitudes towards its past, as well as territorial issues – not to mention mostly negative worldwide attention on its whaling projects and dolphin hunts.
At the same time, there is also an enormous stockpile of goodwill thanks to the country’s unique peace constitution and its general avoidance of conflict. Then there’s the attraction of “soft power,” consisting of the very appealing cultural aspects – both traditional and modern – to which political scientist Joseph Nye gives great credence.
We’re often treated to our journalist Members’ views of Japan’s image in the pages of newspapers, magazines and websites. And while we appreciate their in-depth analysis and commentary, we thought we’d ask some other knowledgeable Club Members to share their thoughts about what is important in international relations in today’s world – the “branding” of a country, and what it means to a nation’s standing in the international community.

Generally, how would you rate Japan’s international image?

Ross Rowbury, President and CEO, Edelman Japan Generally positive. However, in the increasingly complex environment, cer- tain individual geopolitical, historical and cultural issues are receiving focused nega- tive attention.

How important do you think a positive “brand” is to a country’s well being?

John Sunley, Chief Executive, Ashton Consulting, Ltd. Just as for individuals where a positive self-image encourages others to see you in a positive light, a good brand gives a country an enormous advantage in business, politics and all spheres of inter- national activity. The more the worlds of business, politics and tourism globalize, the more important the brand becomes. If a country has a good reputation for prod- uct quality, integrity, or good hospitality, these factors can be the tipping point fac- tor in a decision to buy a product, sign a treaty or visit Japan. Because these brand factors are not really measurable, econo- mists often ignore them.

Rowbury: In a world where there is increasing competition for capital, invest- ment and talent, a positive brand is just as important for a country as it is to any company or organization.

What are the positive issues that Japan should stress?

Sunley: It would depend on the audience, but I think for most, number one would be the country’s success at creating a society of relative security, safety, peace, longevity and equality. How many people are aware that the proportion of Japan’s population that is in jail is less than a tenth of that of the U.S. and a fraction of that in France or the UK? Second would be Japan’s position as a liberal democracy, a key differentiator from China and, to some extent, Korea – though this is rarely mentioned in media coverage of the disputes. Number three would be the huge role played by Japan in international organizations.

Shuri Fukunaga, Managing Director and Japan CEO, Burson-Marsteller: There are a few aspects, such as the hardworking peo- ple, cool products, clean cities, monozukuri, and the healthcare system, that are being communicated relatively well. But interest in these facets are segmented. What Japan has yet to communicate well is its holistic stance – who we are, what we stand for, and where the heart of the country lies in the context of a global society. This must be done holistically and convincingly, not only internationally but to the Japanese population as well.

Rowbury: The top three would be Cool Japan, meaning food and culture; innova- tion, since Japan has more patents than any other country yet is often seen as not being innovative; and its contributions to the world, since Japan has been per- ceived as being insular. It needs to build its image as a key contributor to the rest of the world.

What are the largest negative issues that the country faces in the international arena?

Sunley: First, the antagonism from China and, to an extent, from South Korea. Sec- ond would be poor communication of the country’s strengths by government and industry to the media and the inter- national audience. And third is fears over- seas of the consequences of Japan’s demo- graphic problems and government debt.

Rowbury: Questions about the strength of the economic revival; Japan’s interpretation of history; the perceived lack of innovation.

So would you agree that Japan has a largely positive image in education, science and culture; negative in business and economics?

Rowbury: I agree with the positives although Japan could probably improve the image of its higher education institu- tions. I believe the tide is turning on the image of business and economics.

Sunley: I think it is broadly true, but that the positives are weakly perceived and the negatives exaggerated. The main reason for the gaps between reality and percep- tion are poor international communica- tion by Japan and its industry.

Has Japan’s international image improved or worsened over the last five years?

Sunley: It takes a long time and a great deal of effort to change perceptions of a country. Nevertheless, I think the image of Japan in most regions has improved over the past 20 or 30 years.

Rowbury: The focus on a number of individual issues as I mentioned earlier has caused some worsening of Japan’s image. But over the past year, these have been counterbalanced by positive news on the 2020 Olympics, Abenomics and the strength of the government’s leadership.

How would you rate Japan’s PR activities on the global stage?

Fukunaga: Japan has a weakness, and it is the country’s naïveté in communications. Japan means well. It truly does. But it communicates its message to the world in undisciplined, staccato bursts. The mes- sages are cast into the wide night sky like distant fireworks that disappear before making a strong impression on the view- ers. Seen from the outside world, Japan fails to be convincing.

Sunley: Generally poor so far but there are signs that this failure is being recog- nized by Abe and various government ministries. Other countries use experi- enced third-party foreign advisors to a much greater extent than Japan.

From a PR perspective, what advice would you have for Abe regarding his visits to Yasukuni Shrine?

Sunley: I believe that Abe should follow the example of Willi Brandt and make an impassioned and public apology for the actions committed by Japan’s military during WWII. I think the apology should not be hedged in any way. If I was advising them I would suggest that before making the apology they should tell their oppo- nents from that time that they are going to do so and ask them to consider issu- ing public statements accepting Japan’s apology. This would put China and Korea on the spot, since I believe they are using the Yasukuni Shrine visits for political and economic purposes.

Fukunaga: If pockets of Asia continue to be anxious about Japan’s potential to turn mili- taristic, Japan cannot simply assume such fears are groundless and continue ignoring them. Japan has to directly tackle the subject by taking steps to alleviate them, however misguided such perceptions could appear. What Japan needs to do is begin a direct conversation starting with a frank acknowl- edgement that such concerns exist. Japan needs to position itself as willing to listen. Only by paying attention to its audiences can Japan expect to gain the sufficient trust that will allow the discussions to move to the next level – how and why those con- cerns may or may not be misguided.

From a PR perspective, what advice would you give the government about the whaling issue and the Taiji dolphin hunt?

Sunley: I am not an expert on either issue but if there are genuine scientific and cultural reasons to do these things then Japan must communicate why they are necessary – consistently and expert- ly. Being silent or inarticulate damages brand Japan. Have an open debate on the issues; if a committee of enquiry or par- liament decides they should be stopped, then stop them.

Japan often says that the conflict with other Asian countries is attributable to a lack of understanding about Japanese culture and policies.

Rowbury: I think it is more the result of a number of Asian countries being at a period of development where they want to chal- lenge the status quo. Japan is also trying to change the role it plays on the world stage. This is causing competition and friction that is being channelled into a number of specific geopolitical and historical issues.

Sunley: Japan has an excellent relation- ship with most Asian countries, most European countries, the U.S. and South American countries as well as Australia and others. For many of these countries, Japan’s culture and society and policies are the reasons for that. China and Korea are the exceptions.

What could Japan do to improve its PR activities?

Fukunaga: Japan definitely needs to get to know its audience better. It needs to sensitize itself to the diversity of the inter- national audience. In each sector, Japan must learn what is known and what is not known; what that sector thinks it knows and how it perceives Japan. All too often, Japan assumes that it has made a sufficient explanation, with the result that it inno- cently ignores the remaining concerns. This appears as arrogance on Japan’s part, which serves only to feed the gap between Japan and the rest of the world.

For example?

Fukunaga: Let me illustrate with a case that is of a different level of discussion yet tells much. Let’s talk about soba and the way Japanese people slurp it. It’s always been seen by the West as bad manners. But has anyone explained the reason behind it? Has anyone explained how sophisti- cated the ritual is, since it allows diners to enjoy the aroma along with the taste? Has anyone explained how similar it is to how wine connoisseurs “slurp” wine?